Stephen Sondheim is a man who loves puzzles. In this 1987 creation, he put together four fairy tales by the Brothers Grimm, plus a new one by his collaborator James Lapine. He collapsed the lives of the characters and intertwined them on a mutual meeting ground — where else but the woods where so many such stories take place? He added a score that’s an intricate amalgam of cheery ditties and profound expressions of fear and loneliness.
Matthew Decker, cofounder of Theatre Horizon and a successful director elsewhere (such as the Arden’s Great Expectations), views the wood as the dark place where people tell stories about trials and emerge wiser. The wood also is a symbol of the womb, the past, and the unconscious. He sees Into the Woods as a gathering around a campfire.
The Broadway productions directed by Lapine in 1987 and 2002 provided a castle, a tower, a garden, and a beanstalk. Decker, on the other hand, ingeniously uses an intimate stage to help us see what’s important. Props are improvised from mundane objects, as when potted plants are placed on the pulled-out drawers of a file cabinet to simulate a beanstalk. As you expect around a campfire, or with your child at bedtime, imagination is the most important ingredient.
Emphasis on versatility
Decker utilizes the skills of his cast members not only as actors, but also as instrumentalists, creative devisers, and storytellers. They are in contemporary casual clothes, and they mix with audience members before starting their tales. Some of them play musical instruments and blend with the band at the back of the stage. They comprise the best ensemble of any play or musical this season.
This production is unlike John Doyle’s Broadway production, in which all of the score was played by cast members. The instruments are specifically chosen. For example, Rachel Camp plays the harp because Jack stole a golden harp from the giant in the sky; Alex Bechtel carries an accordion because the sound of it is perfect for the exhalation of his dying cow.
All the while, the music is never neglected. The stories may be cute, and the telling may be informal, but all of Sondheim’s notes are serious and every voice here is perfect for its part. An all-star gathering of performers Charlie DelMarcelle, Michael Doherty, Rachel Camp, Steve Pacek, Kristine Fraelich, Ben Michael, Alex Bechtel, Kala Moses Baxter, Liz Filios, and Leigha Kato comprise the best ensemble of any play or musical this season.
Theatre Horizon just won a Barrymore Award for demonstrating the ability “to illuminate the way we live and interact with others.” The award was for its production of I Am My Own Wife — and their Into the Woods shows that ability even more strongly.